August 12, 1983
I believe we’ve discussed once or twice in this series, and possibly in other contexts, that in 1977 there was this movie called “STAR WARS” that absolutely knocked pop culture on its ass, and the thing still hasn’t recovered. One of the biggest and longest lasting pop culture creations so far. More than a phenomenon. Practically a religion.
Would you care to guess what was #2 at the U.S. box office that year, and therefore also a big deal? It was SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, the directorial debut of stuntman Hal Needham. Though I’m not aware of a disco version of its theme song, it made more money than CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND or SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. It was huge.
SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II came out the August after EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and did pretty well, if not as well. Now we have SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT PART 3 released in the August after RETURN OF THE JEDI. This time it acknowledges its sister trilogy by opening with text that says, “Once upon a time, there was a famous Sheriff. It was not so long ago in our very own galaxy……..”
No Star Destroyer joke like GET CRAZY, though. Instead it goes right into a two-minute highlight montage of car crashes, roller coaster destruction and other hijinks from the previous movies, presented in 4 x 3 sepiatone, interspersed with clips of Cledus “The Snowman” Snow (Jerry Reed, GATOR) talking on the CB, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason, THE HUSTLER) being outraged, and Bo “The Bandit” Darville (Burt Reynolds, OPERATION C.I.A.) laying on a hammock laughing about it.
Then it goes straight into a parody of PATTON, with the sheriff making a speech in front of a giant American flag. I laughed at the joke that he says “You can all sit down now” and it cuts to the front row of police officers sitting down while the maybe two dozen citizens in the mostly empty gym hadn’t stood up anyway. The sheriff is retiring, so he’s decided to throw a celebration of himself, wearing a shiny combat helmet and General uniform and indulging in a boring speech about the good old days when he “chased those pimply-faced, long-haired hippies” and everything. Please note that back then it was normal even for a movie aimed at good ol’ boys to depict cops as reactionary militarized dipshits trying to ruin everybody’s fun. Maybe they could still make this, but they’d have the good guys (or a new character played by a country singer) stop to tearfully honor the service of the brave men and women in uniform.
The other villains in the series are Big Enos (Pat McCormick, THE PHYNX) and Little Enos (Paul Williams, BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES), rich father and son who use their money to fuck with people. This time they challenge Sheriff Justice to a cross country race. But he just wants to retire to Florida, so the opening credits feature a song about him (“Buford T. Justice” by Ed Bruce) over a montage of his adventures in retirement, including getting splashed during an orca show at Sea World Orlando (site of JAWS 3-D). After various slapstick embarrassments he says to his son (‘60s Tarzan Mike Henry), who has apparently retired with him, “Junior, retirement is cat shit. Let’s get the Enoses.” And then they’re cops again and they make a public bet that if they can drive from Miami to the Enos Ranch outside of Austin by 5:30 pm the next day they’ll get a quarter of a million dollars, and if they can’t then Buford has to give them his badge.
So the movie is a series of wacky encounters as Sheriff and Junior drive around doing stupid shit and the Enoses pop up in different disguises (sombreros, camouflage, drag, cow masks) playing dirty tricks like the villains in a cartoon. All of the jokes are corny, few are funny. I thought it was kinda amusing that he gets lost in downtown Miami and wastes 2 hours right at the beginning of the race.
As part of the bet they have to carry a shark-shaped sign for the Enos’ new fish and chips restaurant so yes, there is a part where the JAWS theme plays as the shark enters the frame.
Oh, hey, but what about our heroes? We haven’t seen any sign of Bandit or Snowman since that montage. It’s 19 minutes into the 85 minute movie when Big Enos decides to hire Cledus to interfere with the race. And here’s the thing: he pays him to pretend to be The Bandit. So Cledus wears Bandit’s hat and red shirt, drives his Trans-Am and tries to look like him. He does not question whether his friend should’ve gotten the job or whether this constitutes scabbing. Reynolds only appears for about 90 seconds at the very end, when the sheriff looks at Cledus and sees the real Bandit. So just like Roy Scheider got out of being in JAWS 3-D by doing BLUE THUNDER, Reynolds avoided much commitment to SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT PART 3 by doing STROKER ACE with Needham.
Sally Field didn’t return at all – she had no movies that year, but won an Oscar for NORMA RAE between parts 1 and 2, she didn’t need this shit. Her second Oscar was for PLACES IN THE HEART a year after not doing this movie. Instead, the female gender is represented by Colleen Camp (DEATH GAME, GAME OF DEATH, DEADLY GAMES) as Dusty Fields, a used car lot bookkeeper who quits her job during a live commercial broadcast, hitches a ride from Cledus, and goes all the way to Austin with him. She gets to have at least one good dialogue exchange over the CB:
Dusty: Hello? Mr. Justice? How you folks doin’ down there?
Buford: We’re doin’ fine, little lady. And may I advise you that you’re consortin’ with a criminal. So when he goes to the slammer, you go too.
Dusty: Oh really? While you’re at it, why don’t you take a big dump in your hat!
Buford: Hold it! Watch that language. I happen to have my son in the car. Over and out.
Junior: Thank you, Daddy.
Hats (without big dumps in them) off to screenwriters Stuart Birnbaum (The Bee Gees Special) and David Dashev (THE FISH THAT SAVED PITTSBURGH), or more likely Gleason (who reportedly improvised much of his part on these) for that conversation.
Unlike Loni Anderson’s character in STROKER ACE, Dusty doesn’t have to endure a bunch of sexual harassment. They even stay at a motel called “The Come On Inn – Playground For Adults” without Snowman coming on to her. Actually there’s not as much “well, that didn’t age well” stuff as many comedies of the era. Nothing rapey. One mild comment about a gay bar. Possible connotations to a part where Justice punches a Richard Simmons type.
There’s a scene that begins with a closeup of a Confederate flag on the front of a truck. For a second I thought, “This is one of those hicksploitation things where the Confederate flag is on everything and not necessarily intended as a hate symbol.” Which is true, because later we see it on Cledus’s Banditmobile. But in this case the camera pulls out to reveal that it’s on a pickup truck full of Klansmen, in their robes and masks and everything. Director Dick Lowry (KENNY ROGERS AS THE GAMBLER) or cinematographer James Pergola (THUNDER AND LIGHTNING) or somebody must get what so many people who still fly that flag pretend not to get.
The Klansmen attack two Black men driving a chicken truck, unfortunately just credited as Blackman #1 (Jackie Davis, CADDYSHACK) and Blackman #2 (Pirty Lee Jackson, later a stuntman in BAD BOYS II). The driver says “I ain’t scared of these crackers. I’m Black and I’m proud,” but the Klansmen hit their truck with a hatchet, climb aboard, throw a chicken in their window, and spray beer suds on their window.
Despite Sheriff Buford T. Justice’s many shortcomings, he immediately hates these “Klan clowns” and somehow knows how to cause a crash that tars and feathers them, allowing Blackman #1 and #2 to laugh at their humiliation. But let’s not be nominating Buford for an NAACP award quite yet. A subsequent joke reveals that his wife is in the Klan, and it clearly rattles him later that the cop who has his car towed is a Black woman (Sharon Anderson, ISLAND CLAWS). I suppose being credited as “Police Woman” and him calling her “You woman’s lib sumbitch” suggests that it’s the woman part that bothers him most, but we’ve seen it before. We know what’s going on. He ends up triumphing over her – getting his car, crashing her tow truck, and repeating her smartass comment back to her – but since he’s nominally the bad guy of the movie I can’t really tell which side we’re supposed to be on. That’s the thought-provoking grey area of the SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT saga, I guess.
Other types encountered on the road include a hippie who says “Far out!” about a car crash and a biker gang who throw Snowman out of their hangout until he tosses two of them through windows. A speed boat chase launches Justice into the “Texas Sun Worshippers Picnic” (a nudist group, but the women wear bottoms). Bad guy cars are filled with sudsy milk or buried in sand. Many cars do many donuts, burn much rubber, kick up clouds of dust; they roll, they do side-wheelies, they crash through traffic cones and barriers, a dairy truck, a bunch of bags of ice, many crates of eggs, a flower cart, burning wooden structures in a thrill show, and more. The best is actually a giant American flag. The edit is easy to spot but it’s still cool to go from the sheriff’s PATTON speech in front of the flag to his hooptie dragging a mini-U-Haul trailer catching air as it bursts out of one.
The stunt coordinator/second unit director is David S. Cass Sr. (also stunt coordinator for GET CRAZY).
In my opinion this is a terrible movie, possibly worse than CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER, and I had a fairly hard time getting through it. Obviously the best thing about it is the stunt work, but it’s pretty repetitive and we’ve seen that type of stuff in actual good movies before. So here is another positive thing I have to say about it: I think Gleason’s character work is pretty funny. I appreciate his delusional self regard and some of the ridiculous shit he says – lines like “Shut up, you barrel of monkey nuts!” and “I’m stayin’ with you like stink on a skunk,” and “When I grab his ass it’s gonna by the gravy on my grits,” and “Nothin’s gonna stop me from catching that big pile of dragon dump, and when I do I’m gonna marinate his walnuts.” When Little Enos says he wants to kick his ass, Justice says, “You can’t kick that high, cricket crotch!”
Unfortunately that’s not enough to sustain a whole movie, nor is poor Jerry Reed dressed up as Burt Reynolds, or his basset hound Fred’s cameo watching TV with Freda (another dog we know is a girl because she has pink bows on her ears). By the way, Sheriff Justice also gets a girlfriend, kind of. He thinks he sees Bandit in the steam room of the hotel and handcuffs what turns out to be a tough lady named Tina who then falls for him and jumps onto the roof of his car for the end of the chase. The actress actually gets the first credit – “with Faith Minton.” She was a stunt woman and bit-part-player who later played “Female Boxer” in PENITENTIARY III, “Size 12” in RAGE AND HONOR, and best of all the evil penguin mascot in SUDDEN DEATH. An icon.
The best cameo is by an important political figure. Near the beginning, Big and Little Enos arrive in Miami on a yacht called Monkey Business. ’80s kids know that a photo of Democratic Colorado Senator Gary Hart wearing a “MONKEY BUSINESS CREW” t-shirt with his mistress on his lap during a trip to Bimini forced him to drop out of the 1988 presidential race. According to Wikipedia, Monkey Business was built for the Turnberry Isle Resort in Florida, includes a hot tub and full bar, and has hosted such passengers as Elton John, Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Nicholson and Julio Iglesias.
A crazier (and better?) version of this movie almost existed. It was going to be called SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT PART 3: SMOKEY IS THE BANDIT, because Gleason was gonna play both Sheriff Justice and The Bandit! Apparently he didn’t talk until one line at the end, but he imitated Burt’s laugh. For years many assumed this alternate cut was a myth, but someone uncovered a teaser trailer where Gleason in character as Justice explains that “I have finally figured out a way to trap him. I have put myself in his place, also his boots, and his shirt, and his hat, and his coat, and his mustache. In short, I have succeeded in becoming my own worst enemy: da Bandit.”
Test screening audiences were confused, so they cut Gleason’s part as the Bandit and shot the Jerry Reed scenes. The deleted footage has never been released or leaked, but there’s an apparent photo of Gleason in costume, and some have noted that Reed’s stunt double in the movie has more of a Gleason body type.
The idea of Gleason nonsensically playing both roles is so absurd I gotta respect it. But once that concept morphs into Reed playing not-the-Bandit it starts to seem less like audacious silliness and more like a cynical rip off. It feels cheaper than CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER because at least Ted Wass was playing a different character with some intentional differences from Clouseau. This is more like if in 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS Paul Walker dressed up as Dom as a decoy and pretended to be him for the whole movie, until a little TOKYO DRIFT style cameo by Vin Diesel at the end. I mean obviously that would’ve been funny, but it might not have been considered acceptable by most people and we wouldn’t be waiting for FAST X PART 2 right now, is my guess. However, if Walker had played both O’Connor and Toretto in 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS we would almost surely be living in a beautiful utopian paradise. Same goes for SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL with Sandra Bullock playing both Annie Porter and Jack Traven.
Let’s go back to RETURN OF THE JEDI. Han Solo being frozen in carbonite was partly a contingency plan in case Harrison Ford decided not to come back for part 3. They had Lando ready to fulfill his role. But would they have dressed Lando in Han’s clothes? I’m guessing no. But SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT PART 3 went there, and it has not persisted in pop culture the way STAR WARS has. There were prequels (four TV movies starring Brian Bloom), but there was never a legacy sequel, animated series, or spin-off shows on CMT+ (though David Gordon Green wrote an unproduced pilot for a series that he wanted to make with his fellow producers of Eastbound & Down, the show named after the SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT theme song). I don’t think an argument can be made that SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT has maintained its pop culture prevalence other than as a thing some people remember liking, and maybe occasionally watch on cable. That may be different in the south, where its box office glory began, but probly not by much.
There was never a world where the Banditverse would go on for decades and become more and more inescapable, since it doesn’t have Ewoks in it. But maybe it would’ve survived a while longer if not for this movie souring so many on the series. Or maybe just the idea of it – not many saw it. Far from repeating the first film’s second place box office trophy, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT PART 3: SMOKEY IS NOT THE BANDIT placed 101 in the 1983 domestic box office, below STROKER ACE (which was a career-derailing flop for Reynolds), THE STING II (another hated sequel where Gleason leads instead of the previous film’s stars), and even a re-release of PORKY’S. It did at least do better than CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER (#111), YELLOWBEARD (#115), Michael Mann’s THE KEEP (#115), YOR: THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE (#121), and Martin Scorsese’s THE KING OF COMEDY (#124).
Just as Sheriff Buford T. Justice kept driving the chassis after his car got blown up, the makers of SMOKEY AND THE BAND PART 3 kept right on going. Gleason had two more starring roles: the TV movie IZZY AND MOE with Art Carney, and the Garry Marshall film NOTHING IN COMMON with Tom Hanks. Reed had a couple more movies and TV episodes, most notably in the Adam Sandler movie THE WATERBOY. Writers Birnbaum & Dashev got story credits on THE ZOO GANG and SUMMER SCHOOL. Second unit director Cass later did the same for TEQUILA SUNRISE and SUBURBAN COMMANDO and became a director and writer for many TV movies. For TNT he wrote HARD TIME and HARD GROUND and directed HARD TIME: THE PREMONITION, all starring the actual Burt Reynolds.
Lowry had already been a television director, but this theatrical debut did not lead to any more big screen projects. He went on to do such notable TV movies such as PIGS VS. FREAKS starring Patrick Swayze, THE TOUGHEST MAN IN THE WORLD starring Mr. T, and PROJECT: ALF starring ALF. He’s apparently still alive but retired (to Florida?) after doing the seventh Jesse Stone movie, INNOCENTS LOST in 2011.